The Trap of “Either Or” Thinking

Jovi Nazareno discusses how doubt creeps up when learning a skill, such as writing, but can be overcome⎮4 min read

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Author: Jovi Nazareno, student at Harvard University Extension School.

As a child and adolescent, I loved writing in a diary, submitting reflections for school, and taking on creative writing options for projects. Freedom came with being allowed to take all the time I wanted to think about my feelings, have random ideas or imagine another world. On my own timeline, I could create, delete, re-create, re-delete and repeat until I crafted the perfect product. Then in my senior year of high school, we had regular timed writing tests in preparation for standardised exams. Writing changed. Timed writing resulted in my avoidance of writing and skipping of classes where we practiced it. I thought timed writing was too hard, too demanding, too limited. I questioned whether I was as good a writer as I had once believed. I began to shy away from writing and even hated and feared it in certain situations.

As I continue to study and learn about writing, I now understand my perception of writing in high school was writing apprehension.1 I also realise that the hate and fear I felt under timed situations were reflections of disbelief in my own abilities. I presumed that I either had “it” or I didn’t. Because timed writing seemed an important measure for success in school, if it was so hard, perhaps I was not meant to be a writer. These self-beliefs become self-fulfilling2; you achieve what you believe.

As friends, parents, and/or educators, our goal is often to share a skill or knowledge. Part of doing so requires an understanding of how deep the roots of fears, anxiety or apprehension might be. Why does just one type of writing affect a person’s sense of self-efficacy so greatly? How does someone find himself/herself experiencing anxiety so great that writing is avoided? Where does this fear and disbelief in one’s own writing ability come from? Doubt creeps up when learning a skill, such as writing, but can be overcome.

Caught in the “either or” trap

Observing classmates, timed writing seemed to be a non-issue. The prompt was handed out, everyone scribbled quickly then turned their papers upside-down until the teacher came around to pick it up. The level of focus and immediate action made me yearn for what seemed to come as natural talent. In my youth, I believed, mistakenly, that someone is either good or bad at doing something such as writing. The simplistic and dichotomous view meant that the label of a writer could only be given to a person who’s writing always impressed. Feedback in the form of low scores meant my writing was bad, which conflicted with my idea of myself as a writer and the well-performing student. The “either or” trap widened because of a fixed mindset, incomplete patterns of being a writer and shortcuts to framing the world around me, all of which could possibly contribute to a similar trap for others too. By the early age of 1 to 3, praise for unchangeable innate abilities, as opposed to effort, already seems to begin contributing to a fixed mindset.3

A fixed mindset contributes to the “either or” way of thinking because of the belief that we are either born with intelligence or not and thereby can either be good at something or not. This leads to an unending downward cycle of self-defeat. If we think our abilities are fixed, we are less likely to persist with effort and over time than if we know our abilities can indeed be changed.4 Such deep-set but inaccurate views of mental capacity and intelligence seem to come from the types of and quality of information we are exposed to and a misunderstanding that nature (genes) is more powerful than nurture (environment).5 Judgments such as good or bad labels on our writing can unintentionally feed into a fixed mindset by oversimplifying our views of a skill or task as learnable or not.

As part of learning and organising the world around us, we also look for and seek to understand patterns.6 This meant that I sought out commonalities in what made someone a writer and relied on these common factors to determine whether I was a writer or not. My youthful inadequate model of a writer looked something this: writers were people who wrote so well and so easily that they were published, esteemed and admired. I wanted to be that. Poor scores on some writing task told me that I did not fit the pattern, however. The way we learn to organise the world around us and the details to which we pay attention can inform where and how we think we fit in. Much like how the judgments we place on our performance can feed a fixed mindset, a lack of models of effort and persistence can feed into negative beliefs about what feedback means.

Further, we each have biases and shortcuts that appeal to us as quick ways to make sense of information and make in-the-moment decisions.7 Perhaps it is the mere simplicity of having just two options to weigh - either good or bad- that contributes to falling into the binary trap of self-judgement. It is much easier to hold just two options in our minds than to hold all the possibilities in-between. Yet those in-betweens are exactly what we need to step over the “either or” trap and become optimistic about our learning capabilities. Attributing our failures to temporary and changeable situations8 rather than to being a terrible writer or student can help us cope and perform better academically. Outside of school, an abundance of writing opportunities builds connections with people and celebrates personal identities.9 This means writing is not just good or bad but full of possibilities.

Binary is simple; life is not

While we all have our own experiences and possible fixations on having some label or not, we share commonality in being overly caught up in simple categorisations. Embracing complexity is how we can move forward - many ways exist to be great at writing because there are so many ways to write. Ultimately, judgment of a performance outcome as either good or bad can inhibit growth by focusing our thoughts on being impressive instead of just learning. The potentially detrimental impact is clear: If we think we are stuck in place because we are either good at doing something or not, and we place value on being that something, we can become fearful of the bad outcome.

Start by questioning the labels and categories you yourself may be placing people into. Parents need to compliment effort and understand that low performance is not necessarily lack of ability. Managers need to support colleagues by recognising that defensiveness or procrastination is not necessarily overconfidence or laziness. We must realise these judgements can do harm. Teachers, most of all, must help their students to see and then avoid the giant “either or” net that too easily captures us in many facets of life.

Originally published by Conexiones


1 Daly, J. A. (1978). Writing apprehension and writing competency. The Journal of Educational Research, 72(1), 10–14. Retrieved from JSTOR.

2 Pajares, F. (2003). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing: A review of the literature. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 19(2), 139–158.

3 Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1- to 3-year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526–1541.

4 Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

5 Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2018). Neuromyths: Debunking false ideas about the brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

6 Beitman, B. D. (2009). Brains seek patterns in coincidences. Psychiatric Annals, 39(5), 255–264.

7 Benson, B. (2016, September 1). Cognitive bias cheat sheet: Because thinking is hard. Retrieved from Better Humans website:

8 Peterson, Christopher, J. E., & Steen, T. A. (2009). Optimistic explanatory style. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology [kindle version] (2nd ed., pp. 313–322). New York: Oxford University Press.

9 Schultz, K., Hull, G. A., & Higgs, J. (2016). After writing, after school. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (2nd ed., pp. 102–115). New York: The Guilford Press.

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